On a calm street, blocks from the auto hum of Wilshire and Fairfax, a 1930s architectural classic plays portal to another era's drug surreality. Within the walls of Rudolf Schindler's Buck House lie '60s decay and dystopia, a bizarre mix of science, government and psychoactive drugs that turned quietly hidden pockets of postwar Southern California into a substance-fueled testing ground for the expansion of consciousness.
This is ostensibly the former home of one Dr. Arthur Cook, a CIA-sponsored psychedelic drug-testing psychologist — who never actually existed. The remnants of years of drug manufacturing, experimentation and use scattered throughout its rooms and hallways, apparently abandoned for decades, are actually an elaborate new installation from Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman, “Bright White Underground,” at Country Club L.A.
The paint is peeling, holes are busted through walls, dried gunk coats the carpeted floors, and the kitchen is overrun with laboratory equipment attached to live cacti. Windows are covered with newspaper and black plastic. Earthquake-broken concrete erupts into the dining room. Wires and recording equipment tangle in a once-hidden closet space. It's the house version of one of those hard rockers who managed to live and party long enough to gradually devolve into a crusty, strung-out mess, an acid test of neurotic postwar America.
“There was a nice little moment in history where things were shifting from an empirical scientific viewpoint into this neomystical approach that came out of psychedelic-drug use,” Freeman says. “The point right before that shifted is really interesting to us.”
He and Lowe tell that story of psychedelic-drug research in the mid 20th century through the character of Cook and the cactus-based drug Marasa — also a fiction — that he was testing and manufacturing.
“Bright White Underground,” which was intricately constructed over the course of a month, expands on a recurring drug theme in the duo's work. Previous installations include “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun,” a crystal-meth lab originally installed in a space in Marfa, Texas, and another drug-lab environment, “Black Acid Co-op,” created in MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch's New York gallery, Deitch Projects.
Lowe and Freeman note that they're interested in alchemy and the social and cultural communities that form around its modern context. To explain those communities, they construct a deep narrative that's both historically linked and blatantly fabricated. Elements of that narrative are subtly spliced throughout the work, sometimes almost imperceptibly.
“If you start to look and you have some time, you can see these elements repeat,” Lowe says. “It's just not necessarily in a totally linear fashion.”
The details of Cook's fictional foray into CIA-funded testing, and his eventual split into his own era of swinger-filled consciousness-benders, extend beyond the weary and abused interior space into the literature and collage also found there, including nearly 100 fake books in the library as well as within the pages of a 1969 edition of the Artichoke Underground, an invented newspaper plastered over the living-room windows.
For an already overwhelming immersive experience, the additional level of backstory is almost too much to take in. But the artists say visitors can take it or leave it, at their own risk.
“The narrative is not necessarily important,” Freeman says. “It's there if you want to know, but if you're not that interested, you're not necessarily not going to get anything from the piece.”
BRIGHT WHITE UNDERGROUND | By JUSTIN LOWE and JONAH FREEMAN | Country Club L.A. | 805 S. Genesee Ave., L.A. | (323) 658-8522 | countryclubprojects.com | Through Oct. 30